Goolwa, SA

Historic port, now a holiday town, near the mouth of the Murray River.

Goolwa, an historic port at the mouth of the Murray River, is now an upmarket holiday resort for Adelaide people. It is only an hour's drive from Adelaide's CBD. The town was declared a State Heritage Area in 1987 and consequently it has a large number of very well preserved buildings which offer a unique insight into the working of one of Australia's most significant inland ports. Goolwa is a genuinely important location which offers visitors a series of important experiences ranging from the development of the port near the mouth of the Murray; an insight into the importance of the Murray River as a transport route prior to the construction of railway lines; the unique and stable culture of the Ngarrindjeri people; and the attempts to turn this historic port into a chic holiday and weekend destination by developers with little consideration for the local Aborigines and their traditions.


Goolwa is located on the shores of Lake Alexandrina, on the western section known as the Goolwa Channel, 82 km south of Adelaide.


Origin of Name

It is widely accepted that "goolwa" is a Ngarrindjeri word meaning "elbow". It is located at an elbow on the Murray River.


Things to See and Do

Signal Point Centre
The Signal Point Centre, a substantial modern building positioned above the Wharf and looking across the bridge to Hindmarsh Island, was completed in 1988, opened by Prince Charles, and is a display centre devoted to the long and complex history of the Murray River. It is an excellent starting point for any exploration of the region as it has an extensive historic photo display; a detailed history of humans living beside the river with exhibitions about the shipping and shipbuilding which defined early Goolwa and a display which explains how Goolwa is an integral part of the history of the Murray. The complex also contains the Signal Point Gallery, the Signal Point Cafe and is a place to purchase tickets for cruises and other local activities. It is open seven days a week from 9.00 a.m. - 5.00 p.m. For more details contact (08) 8555 3488.

Goolwa State Heritage Area
There is a downloadable brochure titled Goolwa State Heritage Area (type "Goolwa State Heritage Area" into Google and follow the PDF download at which draws a line around the centre of the town, defines it as a State Heritage Area, and lists a total of 17 buildings and locations. It includes: (1) the Council Chambers in Cadell Street which incorporate the original Town Hall (1860) and which were modernised in 1878 and 1907; (2) the Goolwa Hotel in Cadell Street which dates from 1853 and has the figurehead from the Irish sailing ship, Mozambique out the front; (3) the bow-fronted shop across from the hotel which dates from the 1850s and the early days of the river trade; (4) the Old Police Station and Court House in Goolwa Terrace which was built between 1859-74; (5) the morgue with government facility built in 1883; (6) the Post Office (built in 1857 and used by tramway passengers until 1872) in Goolwa Terrace opposite the Gardens in the middle of town which were completed in 1917;  (7) the former railway horse stables behind the Post Office where the horses that pulled the train from Goolwa to Port Elliot were stabled (built 1862) - the horses were replaced by locomotives in 1884; (8) the former Railway Superintendent's house dating from 1852, known as the Round House it is the oldest building in town; (9) the railway cutting behind the post office which dates from 1852 and is the oldest surviving railway works in Australia; (12) the Corio and former Australasian Hotels on the corner opposite the post office (both these buildings date from 1857 when the town was at its height - the Australasian closed in 1934 and was used as an office for the building of the Goolwa barrage until 1940); and, closer to the river, (13) the Customs House (1859) which was built when Goolwa was proclaimed a port. The wharf (14) was built in 1852, extended in 1866, rebuilt in 1874 and extended in 1878 and the railway goods shed (15) was constructed in 1879 and relocated in 1913. The cottages in Little Scotland (16) at the end of Hayes Street were built in the 1860s and (17) Cockenzie House on Admiral Terrace which was built by Captain George Johnson in 1856.

National Trust Museum
The town's National Trust Museum is housed in a blacksmith's shop which was built around 1872 and is located at 11 Porter Street.  The museum's exhibits offer an insight into the history of the Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island focussing on the life of local Ngarrindjeri Aborigines before the arrival of Europeans, the town's shipbuilding industry and the local community. It is located on Porter Street and open from 2.00 pm - 4.00 pm Monday to Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, tel: (08) 8555 2221 or check out

The Cockle Train
The Cockle Train, a superb old steam train, travels along the oldest steel-railed railway in Australia which dates back to 1887. It was constructed to provide a link between the Goolwa and the ocean wharfs at Port Elliot and later at Victor Harbor. The train runs at different times during the year but, typically, offers three return trips between Goolwa (where it is stationed) and Victor Harbor on Sundays and Wednesdays. It travels via Middleton and Port Elliot. The journey takes 30 minutes thus the 10.00 am from Goolwa reaches Victor Harbour at 10.30 and returns at 11.00 am. There is a very useful and detailed website at which provides information about timetables and costs. No need to book.

The Barrages
The problem with the Murray River is that it is 2,530 km long but it is so meandering and flat that saltwater, particularly on high tides, can literally reach hundreds of kilometres inland. Historically sharks were sighted over 200 kilometres upstream from Lake Alexandrina and dolphins were seen swimming in the river over 100 km from the mouth. It was not uncommon for the river to be saline up to 250 km from Lake Alexandrina. Consequently in 1931 it was decided to construct five barrages to separate the saltwater from the freshwater so that the fresh water quality could be improved and Adelaide, which relied on water from the Murray, could be provided with regular fresh water. The work on the barrages occurred between 1935-1940 with the main Goolwa Barrage taking the longest time. It is possible to travel through the Goolwa Barrage on the Spirit of Coorong cruises. On the way out to the Goolwa Barrage there is a Bird Watching Hide and the Goolwa Barrage is open to visitors from 8.00 am - 5.30 pm.  

Hindmarsh Island
The appeal of Hindmarsh Island is the access it provides to the area of Lake Alexandrina across from the mouth of the Murray River. It is possible to reach the southern tip of the island and to view the sandbars which have made the mouth of the river so difficult for shipping. The island was the traditional home of the local Ngarrindjeri Aborigines and there is evidence of shell middens and very early occupation. It also offers an opportunity to see how a wilderness island can be turned into an upmarket marina by developers determined, and greatly assisted by politicians, to exploit what should have remained a peaceful wilderness for weekend anglers and bird watchers.

Cruises to the Mouth of the Murray, on the Murray and around the Coorong
There are four major cruises around the Coorong National Park and up the Murray River from Goolwa. The shorter Coorong Discovery Cruise departs from the main wharf at Goolwa at 1.00 pm Monday, Thursday and Saturday. It passes through the barrage which separates the ocean’s saltwater from the Murray River’s freshwater, passes the mouth of the Murray and heads down into the Coorong. The cruise includes a very informative commentary focussing on both the history of the area and offering a wide ranging discussion of the local flora and fauna. Expect to see many of the region’s 200 bird species including black swans and, of course, hundreds of pelicans. The Coorong Discovery Cruise lasts 3.5 hours (1.00 pm -4.30 pm) and operates Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Check out for rates and further information.

There is a longer tour: the Coorong Adventure Cruise which lasts 6 hours (10.00 am every Wednesday & Sunday (October - May). It passes the mouth of the Murray, continues down Younghusband Peninsula where, at Godfrey’s Landing, passengers alight and cross the narrow peninsula, walk down onto the beach and search for cockles along the shoreline. The cruise includes lunch, afternoon tea and a very informative commentary focussing on both the history of the area and offering a wide ranging discussion of the local flora and fauna.  Check for more details.

There is also a day trip to Mannum which, as the website explains: "Departs Goolwa Main Wharf at 9.00 am aboard the luxurious “Spirit of the Murray” cruising upstream to Clayton and past Point Sturt into Lake Alexandrina. Across the Lake, past the Narrows and Point Malcolm Lighthouse to Pomanda Island and back into the Murray River again. Continue upstream past Wellington and the Jervois irrigation area, the Tailem Bend cliffs, and Murray Bridge to Mannum. Morning tea, afternoon tea and lunch are served during the cruise and the captain provides an informative commentary throughout the day. On arrival at Mannum, we will transfer you back to Goolwa (arriving approximately 5:00pm)." See for details.

PS Oscar W Cruises
There is a one hour cruise on the PS Oscar W which departs from Goolwa Wharf at 11.00 am usually on a Saturday or Sunday once a month. There is a schedule of dates of departure at the website - check out It is a rare opportunity to travel on a genuine, historic paddle steamer. The Oscar W was built in 1908 by Franz Oscar Wallin at Echuca and has worked on the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Lake Alexandrina ever since. It is now over 100 years old and a trip on the paddle steamer is a reminder of the importance of the river trade prior to the arrival of the railways.


Other Attractions in the Area

The Sad and Complex Story of Hindmarsh Island and the Bridge
Hindmarsh Island, a scrubby and desolate piece of land popular with anglers and people wanting to escape into the wilderness, is separated from Goolwa by the Goolwa Channel, a narrow stretch of water which, historically, was only accessible by cable ferry or private boat. Not surprisingly this meant that on weekends in summer people planning to cross the channel had to wait for hours for the solitary ferry.

In 1977 two Adelaide developers, Tom and Wendy Chapman, purchased 30 hectares on Hindmarsh Island with a plan to turn a section of the sandy island into a 560 berth marina, build lots of expensive holiday housing and a golf course. To make their investment viable and profitable they proposed removing the ferry and building a bridge.

From the outset the development was fraught with problems (if you want to read every gory detail Wikipedia is particularly good - check out Local people eager to retain the isolation of the island objected. People who wanted the island's quiet ambience retained objected and, most importantly, the local Ngarrindjeri people objected. They claimed that the island contained many sacred sites, was their land (it was – they could demonstrate continuous settlement of the area) and that any bridge would interfere with sacred sites.

In 1994 the complex issue of building a bridge was further complicated when a group of Ngarrindjeri women claimed that Hindmarsh Island was sacred to them and they could not discuss the issue because it was "secret women's business." Then things turned ugly. The Labour Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Robert Tickner, put a 25 year ban on the building of the bridge. He had not seen the "secret women's business" but knew the rough outlines of the controversy. Then the Liberal Shadow Minister for the Environment tabled the secret documents in parliament. He was forced to resign but, by then, the secret documents had been photocopied and widely circulated.

The developers, the Chapmans, nearly went broke. The project looked like it was not going to go ahead and the complex issue of “secret women’s business” (hardly a new concept for anyone who knew anything about Aboriginal culture but a new concept to those ignorant of Aboriginal ways) ensured that the building of the bridge became a national issue. In 1995 a Royal Commission was established. It argued, without evidence, that the secret women's business was a fabrication. By 1996 the government had changed and the the conservative Howard government had come to power. In 1997 it legislated to allow the bridge to be built. The bridge was duly built although in 2010 the South Australian government did concede that the claim of secret women's business was genuine.

Aboriginal Canoe Tree
The Ngarrindjeri people who lived on the shores of Lake Alexandrina and down into the Coorong were largely sedentary due to the rich supplies of food offered by the lake and the ocean. Consequently their impact on the local area is very evident with large numbers of middens (piles of discarded shells) and canoe trees. A canoe tree can be easily identified because it is clear that the removal of bark and timber has left scars on the trees and branches. The Aboriginal Canoe Tree at Currency Creek is clearly signposted on the road between Goolwa and Strathalbyn. The length of the tree's scar, five metres, indicates that a vessel capable of carrying quite a crew was cut from its bark. It is a reminder of the rich heritage of the Ngarrindjeri in the area.

Although only a few kilometres across Lake Alexandrina to the east of Goolwa, Clayton is 46 km by road via Milang. It is worth visiting as it offers another perspective on the lake and is wonderfully quiet and peaceful.

The Encounter Bikeway
There is a shared walkway (shared by cyclists, walkers, skaters and wheelchairs) which runs from Goolwa to Victor Harbour. Details and information about the track can be accessed at



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area around Lake Alexandrina and through the Coorong had been the home of the Ngarrindjeri people.

* By the 1820s whalers and sealers were operating in the area.

* In 1829-1830 the explorer Charles Sturt travelled down the Murray River and reached the mouth at Lake Alexandrina..

* In 1837 Colonel William Light inspected the area around the mouth of the Murray. He was not impressed seeing the land as poor and the mouth of the river as probably not navigable.

* Goolwa was surveyed in 1840. A town was planned for Currency Creek.

* In 1850 a police station was built at Goolwa. It closed a year later.

* In 1851 a railway was built between Port Elliot and Goolwa at a cost of £20,000.

* A jetty was built at Goolwa in 1852.

* By 1853 paddle steamers were operating on the Murray. The first two steamers were the Mary Ann captained by William Randell and the Lady Augusta captained by Francis Cadell. Both travelled up river from Goolwa to Swan Hill.

* In 1853 Goolwa started building boats to ply the Murray and Darling Rivers.

* Goolwa was resurveyed in 1853 and blocks were sold for around £20. That same year a road was constructed between Goolwa and Port Elliot.

* The railway between Goolwa and Port Elliot wasn't completed until 1854 and the cost blew out to £31,000. The trains carrying the goods travelled at about 10 km/h and had to be unloaded before the goods could be moved to the ships because the waters at Port Elliot were too shallow and the jetty was not long enough. After a decade in which no fewer than seven ships were wrecked off the coast, the port was moved to Victor Harbor. Goolwa became the last point for shipping on the river and then goods would be transported across to Port Elliot for export.

* In 1857 it was officially proclaimed a port (the first inland port in Australia) and, with the construction of wharves and stores, it grew quickly servicing the vast inland of western New South Wales and Queensland. A regular paddle steamer service was established between Goolwa and Port Adelaide. The Goolwa Post and Telegraph Office was opened.

* In 1858 a public ferry was established to ferry goods and people across to Hindmarsh Island.

* By 1860 there was a road connecting Adelaide to Goolwa.

* In 1864 a shipbuilding and repair works was established at Goolwa.

* In 1872 Goolwa was gazetted as a municipality. A new railway station was built.

* By 1878 the Morgan to Port Adelaide railway had been built.

* By the 1880s about 25,000 bales of wool per year were being brought down the Murray and passing through Goolwa.

* By 1913, when it stopped operating as a ship building port, Goolwa had seen 61 river boats built.

* The Goolwa Barrages (there were five in total) were completed in 1940 at a cost of £700,000.

* In 1977 Adelaide developers, Tom and Wendy Chapman, purchased 30 ha of land on Hindmarsh Island with plans to turn it into a marina with holiday housing and a golf course.

* In 1981 the mouth of the Murray River closed for the first time in recorded history.

* By 1987 parts of Goolwa had been declared a State Heritage Area.

* In 2001 the Hindmarsh Island bridge was opened.

* In 2002 the mouth of the Murray River was closed to the public and sand pumping began to try and open the river mouth.

* In 2008-2009 the water in the Goolwa Channel dropped so dramatically that many vessels in the Goolwa Marina left the area.

* In 2009 the Clayton Regulator was created to try to increase water in the Goolwa Channel and the Goolwa Marina.


Visitor Information

Goolwa Visitor Information Centre, 4 Goolwa Terrace, tel: 1300 466 592, Open 10.00 am - 4.00 pm daily.



My favourite place to stay in Goolwa, because it is so romantic and perfect, is the Boathouse at Birks Harbour. It is about one kilometre from the centre of Goolwa and on the shore of Lake Alexandrina. Can you imagine anything more idyllic than a boathouse with water lapping underneath it and boats jangling in the marina outside the front door? Surrounded by verandas this delightful, greying timber cottage, themed with dozens of beautiful pieces of nautical memorabilia, is about as perfect as any holiday by the water can be. Check out or ring (08) 8555 0338.


Useful Websites

There is a useful website with information about markets, accommodation and eating. Check out

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

2 suggestions